Watercolor.

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Doesn’t look like much yet, does it?

I told myself that after my novel, A Guide to a Happier Life, was published, I would never paint my own book cover again.

The unfortunate fact is that when you release two books that are related, like they have the same characters or whatever, you want the branding to feel consistent. And the cover is perhaps the most important part of your branding for a book. So since I painted the last cover, I’m going to have to paint this one too.

Since it’s a project that is going to require a total of nine covers, I have my work cut out for me.

The first cover was done in watercolor, and watercolor has a pretty specific look, so it’s watercolor again.

I’m not a big fan of watercolor.  Well, I’m not a big fan of using watercolor. It’s unpredictable, you see. It blobs out and runs and bleeds, and that’s actually part of its charm. It’s supposed to do that, to be out of control. And that’s part of what I like about looking at watercolor paintings, but it’s hard for me to not see those blobs and runs as horrible mistakes that I made when I’m painting in watercolor. And since watercolor is transparent, you can’t really cover them up. You just have to go with it, and as I’ve discussed previously, I’m not great at that.

You don’t really control watercolor. You nudge it. You guide it. You provide it with a path. But mostly you sit back and let the watercolor paint for you. You relinquish control, and just… participate. Play. See what happens.

Not my specialty.

And the thing is, not only are those inconsistencies, those idiosyncrasies, what makes watercolor beautiful,  it’s where I live in the painting. It’s the visual record of how my eyes, brain, and hand differ from everyone else’s in some number of tiny ways. And that has value, right? If we wanted everything to look perfect we’d just take photos and painting would have been abandoned by now.

Choosing something as rigid and architectural as a cityscape probably wasn’t the best idea either, but I think I’ll have a little wiggle room based on how this is all going to be used in the final product, that maybe I can curve those buildings around the vanishing point just a little, and maybe I can have the chance to play with some unusual textures here and there. It’s to my advantage that the image is intended to not be immediately recognizable. Maybe I can do something interesting in some of the sections where it’s mostly repetitive lines and rectangles.

I’m not feeling anywhere near as confident about this as I was about the last one. I do have more watercolor paper in case I change my mind, though.

So I’ll take that sketch with the big important lines and shapes, and I’ll probably do a couple more drawings; one with more detail, and one that kind of shows where the light and shadow is supposed to go. That’s going to be kinda fun, since that’s where I’m making the most dramatic changes to the source material.

Then I’ll start transferring the big shapes and some guides to the watercolor paper, and I’ll mark spots to leave white for highlights. Then I’ll lay down some big washes… pale yellow for the sky and brown for the buildings, lavender for the street.

And then come layers for shadow and detail.

Because more than anything else, painting in watercolor is the practice of painting light. I just have to remember that. This is a medium that works best for me when I think about it like that; about light and shadow covering everything like a thin veneer, rendering what’s beneath invisible.

Whatever. I need to stop worrying about it and just do it.

 

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Sim City and Creativity.

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SimCity logo, 2013.

I am a child of the early home computer era. I played text-based games on my dad’s Apple IIE, and I continued to play games as the capabilities of the hardware available steadily increased.

One of the games that I never lost my appetite for  was (and still is) Sim City. I played the original Sim City, and I’ve played each of the subsequent versions, including the newest one.

The newest Sim City is quite pretty, but I believe it is outclassed by Cities: Skylines, a game that has had me thinking a lot about city sims lately as my laptop won’t run it, and I am grieving that fact.

Sim City was a thing I sat down at thinking that it would be a chance to explore a new world, test guesses, take on imaginary responsibilities in a low-risk context… in other words, a chance to be creative. And it always started out that way. But the game is structured in a specific way to keep you increasing your city population in order to unlock new types of buildings and new aspects to gameplay. This means that you don’t get to play the full game until you’ve reached a series of benchmarks.

This is the carrot that gets you to continue the game. I’ve played city sims in sandbox modes, and I’ll say from experience that they’re not as fun, because the challenge is removed, and creativity thrives on overcoming challenges.

But that kind of challenge also changed how I played the game every time. Every single time. I would start out by choosing a map, and initially I’d want something interesting, with features that naturally divided the play area into what I could envision as neighborhoods or city districts. Maps with mountains, mesas, coastlines, rivers, and islands. But since the classic benchmark for Sim City games is city population, these plans, and often entire nascent imaginary towns, were abandoned in attempts to reach more of those benchmarks faster.

Since the kind of land that is most useful for increasing the city population is flat land, the pristine coastal communities and sprawling mountain views were left behind in short order for expanses of flat, unobstructed, featureless land.  The most efficient way to pack the most people in the city play area would, of course, be grids, so curving neighborhood streets became rigidly structured grids, sized so that the highest density of residential apartment buildings would nestle in between the roads perfectly, and as little land as possible would be wasted.

This happened every time.

Why?

Because I wanted to play with the higher level buildings. I wanted to play with the higher level buildings and as a result a more complicated style of gameplay as quickly as possible. But by the time I got those higher level buildings, I had a sad, overpopulated flat plane of gridded streets and grim apartment blocks.

So I would start over with a new city.

This happened over and over again.

Is this starting to sound familiar? Repetitive activity, increasingly high but consistently simple benchmarks to reach before one could move forward…

It, quite frankly, sounds like a lot of jobs I’ve had. And it is the secret to why a job can be simultaneously crushingly difficult and soul-killingly unchallenging. And it is why so many of the jobs we work in the modern day suck, and why our managers and/or our employees within these jobs suck.

Now, I don’t want to go off the deep end and say that Sim City and a good number of the other Sim games that have come since it are designed to teach us how to be good capitalist drones, and the reason I don’t want to say that is because I don’t think that it’s anything so intentional as that. I simply think that these games cannot help but model the dominant culture of those that made them.

Much like stories in any form, be they part of an oral tradition, movies and television, novels or poems or songs, these games are communicating culture, and it takes an intentional effort and an acute awareness of what’s being communicated in order to transmit anything but that dominant culture. This is how culture replicates and spreads. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing; it depends on whether what’s being transmitted improves the world and the lives of its inhabitants or worsens those things.

I’m actually not opposed to capitalism. I like it. I like that someone with a good idea can go into business and invest their money and/or time and effort in that idea, and spread it. But I do worry about certain aspects of corporatism and how they worm their way into the workplace and as a result our daily lives. I think it’s important to be aware of what cultural viruses you may be carrying and to be intentional about which of these you send forth into the minds of others, and how you send them.

 

Productivity and Keeping Busy.

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Winter quarter is about three weeks in now. I talked a lot about productivity in my New Year’s post, and how important it was to me last year to at least prove that I can attain professional productivity levels as regards my writing.

I’m in kind of a holding pattern right now, as I wait for a couple of projects to get to the production stage and hold off for just a little while on finishing and editing my project from NaNoWriMo. I have a third project that needs to crystallize a little more before I really start digging into it.

But generally I hope to always be working on something, and I fill my plate with projects at varying stages of completion in order to accomplish that. Classes aren’t pulling a lot of punches this quarter; classes aren’t difficult exactly, but the work load is high and I’m already a little behind because of some personal stuff that had to get taken care of.

But the funny thing is, the busier I get, the more likely I am to make time for writing. To make that time, and to guard it jealously. I was joking with a friend and collaborator last night that I’m less likely to have problems making time in my life for writing, and more likely to have problems making time in my writing for life. And this increases as I become more and more pressed for time.

I guess it’s partly a question of priorities, which is not to say that I’m letting my studies take a back seat to writing. That’s definitely not the case. But my priorities tend to fall like this: School, Work, Writing, and Everything Else if There’s Time. That everything else includes things like socializing and video games and books and eating food and sleeping.

Some of this is elegantly worked around by setting my social landscape up in such a way that my social time does double duty as work time; writer’s groups and collaborative projects, etc.

But I think another aspect of this is that being in school gets my brain fluids all moving around in ways that spurs creativity. I think school, even though it eats up the most time out of all of my obligations, actually causes me to write more, or to think about writing more, which I’m sure I’ve told you before is almost the exact same as writing. There’s some kind of stimulating effect of being back in the classroom that is salutary to all manner of creative endeavors.

It’s kind of a curious impact, having less time making one more and more productive. I mean, I think there are situations that call for a certain quiet of the mind; times when you have to coax the words to come and seek out the particular voice that best contains what you’re trying to say. I think there are times in which that internal sojourning is vital, and I think it can be difficult to get to that point with a busy, cluttered mind.

But I also think that sometimes the way to reach that quiet of the mind is to just sit down and start, no matter what it is that you’re doing. And that sometimes being busy as hell can be a means or an impetus to that start. It can be the noise that borders the path of quiet, and without which that singular path might remain invisible, bordered on all sides by the similar and camouflaged by it.

So I guess instead of assuming that you’re too busy to do this work, maybe we should all experiment with simply hurling ourselves into the teeth of the storm and see what happens.

Capitalism and Divergent Thinking.

For the purposes of this post it is important to note that when I refer to “capitalism,” I am referring to Big C Capitalism.  Also, it is worth noting that I am an idiot, that I am not an expert in any field, least  any of the ones that might relate to the following piece, and that I failed Psych in college.

Capitalism loves homogeneity.  It’s no mystery why… packages that are all the same size and shape are easier to stack, store, and ship.  Financial predictions are easier to make based on things that are produced and sold all the same.  Shipping is cheaper.  Mechanized production is much easier, making the item in question even cheaper to manufacture.  One look at the dizzying variety in our grocery stores shows that despite all the different packages, we’re really looking at six different kinds of kidney beans, four different kinds of canned tuna, and a few dozen different kinds of bread that more or less taste the same.  Meanwhile the real variety is absent.  Each aisle contains countless versions of the same handful of products.  It turns out that it’s not all that difficult to acclimate consumers to this homogenized range of products, either… even our films have their formulas.  Screenplays must hit certain spots within specified time frames in order to be considered for production in Hollywood.  Almost any film is possible, as long as it follows the formula.

Capitalism values homogeneity in its people as well.  Oh, sure, job descriptions will tell you that managers are looking for creative thinkers, but the fact of the matter is that creativity involves risk by nature, and to capitalism, which pursues profit, this risk is not an opportunity but a cost.  When things are unpredictable, efficiency declines and costs go up.  In fact, every large, successful company really only needs in between one and ten “innovators” and then an army of robots to carry out the wishes of those innovators.  The fact is that for now, it’s easier and cheaper to employ humans to fill those roles.  Even so, a firm hand is kept to ensure that these people, these biorobots, remain within their designated parameters. Capitalism also offers a reward for this conformity.  We are told that if we follow the rules, and work hard, that we will be rewarded with prosperity.  Since most people in the post industrial landscape lack the means to scrape their own living from the earth, this is a pretty good deal for most citizens, and honestly it does a better job of making sure everyone is taken care of than homesteading would.

Even our own brains reward conformity.  Social conformity, in a primate with essentially no natural weapons, was a matter of survival for nascent man.  Social conformity made the group work, and the group was the weapon.  It is our social nature, after all, that turned us down the large-brain side of that particular fork in the evolutionary crossroads, and as far as I’m aware we’re the mammals with the most complex and highly developed social structure on earth.  This is what the big brain made possible, and a part of that is the ability and the desire to conform to social norms.  To feel as though one belongs to a group is a necessary feeling, rewarded with the impression of safety and warmth.  In fact, experiencing the fear of death can inspire greater urges to conform in us.

This is seen not just on an individual basis, but also on a broader scale.  Societies tend to fluctuate on a cultural spectrum, from collectivist to individualist, based on the level of prosperity being experienced.  Individualism is preferred when times are good; with survival needs taken care of, attention can turn to individual choice and self expression.  When times are lean, societies tend to pull together to ensure that the needs of the society are met.

In contrast to this urge for conformity that is encoded into our societies and indeed, into our very brains, we also experience a strong need for self-expression.  This need is considered a part of the need for autonomy as enumerated in the three needs in Self-Determination Theory… autonomy incorporates both the need for agency in one’s life and outcomes as well as the need to act in accordance with one’s self.  The nature and origin of the self have been discussed and studied by people far, far brighter than I, and I won’t have time to go through that in any depth at all, so I’m inclined to skip that conversation entirely and just say that for the purposes of this discussion, the self is a thing that we all have, and it is made up of all of the traits that make us who we are.

So we have a natural, intrinsically motivated desire to act in accordance with the self.  This desire is so strong that it overwhelms the risks of such authentic actions, and at times the biological urge for conformity… all for an action with no tangible or external reward.  It is an action which is its own reward; in fact the existence of an external reward can undermine the value of the act of self expression by preventing it from satisfying our need for autonomy.

This is not just a desire that we have for ourselves; we also seem to seek out authenticity in other people.  We cast about in the world, desiring not just authentic action and authentic expression, but authentic experiences, authentic interaction, and the chance to witness authentic expressions of self from other people.  We are moved by these interactions and expressions because they touch something inside of us, something that is terrifying and wonderful.  Authenticity plucks a string inside of us, and we vibrate in sympathy.

The truth is, existence as a human being is often a horrible burden, and not just in terms of practical stressors, like money or food or emotional security, but due to the fact that we bear up under great personal responsibility, the kind of responsibility that only a thinking creature gifted with free will can know, and exist in a continual state of imperfect knowledge.  We are creatures who conceive of the world, but who are incapable of conceiving a world without us, and still are cursed with an understanding of our own mortality. Is it any wonder that so often we retreat from authentic expression of the self into the comfort of the group, the safety of the homogeneous?  We relinquish responsibility of doing and instead sit back and watch.  We lunge for the carrot and in doing so accept the yoke.  It’s so easy to do, especially in a world that wants, needs us to be consumers, and will offer us pretty much anything that we think might bring us even a moment’s comfort.

This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, but I do think that it leads to a deep and undefinable unhappiness… a sort of a sickness of the soul.  This is not to say that conformity is bad, or even that capitalism is bad.  These are just parts of being human.  But it does emphasize the importance of creative work; work often judged as not having a real place within a capitalist society.

The artist serves a purpose, in that through their actions they take on the risk and the burden of authentic self-expression and reproduce that for others to view and experience, so that everyone can feel that ahh feeling without taking on those risks themselves.  The artist reaches into what it is to be human, like a modern shaman reaching into a world of gods and devils (and indeed, I’m not convinced that art is possible without interaction with the Divine, but that’s for a different post) , and brings back meaning, and then reproduces it in a benign, non-threatening form for all to enjoy.  The artist helps to keep people spiritually whole in a terrible world.

So how does that work, arguably valuable work, fit in with a society in which all labor must be boiled down to dollars? Especially if we grant, as above, that the urge to express the self and to create are intrinsic, but can be undermined by the offer of an external reward? How is that compartmentalization accomplished?

In That Hole.

She staggered out through the dry timbers that framed a gaping doorway into the wild night.  The wind itself was starting to die, and the largest grains of sand were precipitating from the storm as a gentle crystalline rain.  A rain that held no power to comfort or sustain.

A rain with no water.

She saw a tiny movement at the edge of her sight, some distance away.  She turned like a drunk to follow it, with no idea whether it was him or not.  The dark moving shape looked at first like an animal thrashing on the ground.  As she got closer, she discovered that she was only seeing a part of the total form… the rest was in a hole in the ground.

She came to the edge of the hole and found Ray, shirtless, kneeling in a trench.  He was wielding a large, flat stone against the earth, dragging it toward himself and bringing up rolling berms of soil, which he then tossed out of the hole.

“Ray, what are you…” she croaked.

“Digging. Can’t count on you to do it for me.  Can’t burden you with this task.” He spoke in a voice that seemed strangely clear and very flat.

I’ll try to dig for water…

Liz looked at the hole.  It was a trench, almost six feet long by about two feet across.  He had dug it down to eighteen inches already, and a corona of discarded earth lay all around it, describing silently how he had shaped the thing, carved it like a sculptor, crawling around on the bottom.  She fell to her knees beside the hole.  Her eyes burned but could summon no tears.

Ray put his stone down and knelt there, his back and shoulders heaving for a few moments as he recovered from his exertion.

“When the first man dragged himself up out of the clay, and saw standing there the first woman, shining and perfect, he reached out and took her golden hands in his.  As they stood there, on the blasted and bare plain of a new earth, her hands in his, three stars in the sky went out.  One for truth, one for beauty, and one for pain.  And these things are the only things that we’re promised in this world.  The only things we’re promised.  No matter what we do, what choices we make, or what happens to us, these three things fall into our lives with abundance.  To pick up any one of them, you must also take hold of the other three.  They are inseparable.  Without truth and pain, there cannot be beauty.  These are the gifts we are given, we misbegotten creatures with the minds of gods, the hearts of jackals, and the livers of fools.  And we are so undeserving of them.”

His voice was an incantation.  It creaked in his dry throat, but the words emerged clear like bells in the hiss and roar of the ebbing storm.  His voice was flat, strange, and inhuman.  In it she heard all of his weariness.  He turned to her, his eyes bright and the several days of grey-blonde beard caked with desert earth, and said, “do you understand, Liz?”

“What does it mean?” she asked, her head lolling to one side.

He shuffled toward her on his knees, and reached out to her, wrapping his hands around her wrists.  She felt that the tips of his fingers were rough against her skin, and she raised her arms to look.  She saw that the tips of the fingers were crusted in grey dust and beneath that, something darker.  Suddenly she realized that he had started digging with his bare hands, clawing at the ground, and had scraped away his fingertips in the process.  The fingernail was missing on the middle finger of his left hand, probably lost now in one of the piles of discarded earth that ringed the trench.  At some point he had found the stone, probably levered it out of the hole itself, and started using it to dig instead.

I’ll try to dig…

“Oh god, Ray, what have you done,” she breathed.

He pulled downward on her arms, and she allowed herself to be dragged into the hole.  She didn’t have the strength to resist.  She tumbled on top of him, and felt him pulling her until she was lying down beside him in the narrow space, their bodies pressed together.  The walls and the floor of the hole felt blessedly cool, possibly even slightly damp, but there was no way to extract that tiny bit of moisture from it.  She pressed her cheek against the bottom of it, and beside her, Ray’s body felt impossibly warm, pouring off heat into the cool morning air.

He wrapped one ruined hand around her hand and held it to his chest. She could feel his pulse racing in the slightest throb of his hand.

“Nothing is real,” he said, after a few moments of silence.

Panic and welled up inside her, accompanied by a strange ache that she had no name for, but she knew she could do nothing to help him.  The man who had been so focused, so clear, and so lucid just hours ago was gone, replaced by a desperate, delirious man nearing the end of his rope.

“I’m real,” she said.

Ray’s body gave a slight shudder, and then she felt the muscles of his body relax.  “Thank god,” he whispered.

She closed her eyes for a while, and was awakened again as the sun crept up in the sky and shone down into the hole.  The sky was blue, but the finest particles of dust hung in the air and left a shimmering halo around the sun,  She tried to get away from it; its light hurt her skin, but there was nowhere to go.

She tried to lift herself, hoping she could crawl out of the trench, but Ray grabbed her and said, “Don’t leave me.”  He was weak, but his grip on her was strong enough that she didn’t have the energy to break free.  She settled back to the ground next to him, and his grip loosened.

Even if she crawled out of the hole, even if Ray let her, there was nowhere to walk to.  Just miles of desert in every direction… desert that she certainly didn’t have the strength to cross.  She had waited too long to act in defiance of Ray’s plan, to strike out on her own in search of a small town or even an isolated home, and now there were no other options.

Beside her, Ray’s eyes were just barely open enough for her to see the color of the irises.  His upper and lower lashes touched near the ends, and had grains of sand clinging to them.  The eyes darted back and forth almost imperceptibly, as though he were sleeping.  There was no way to know what he saw.  He murmured quietly to himself, a long string of unintelligible syllables, his lips barely moving.

The next time she woke up, Ray was still.  His lips were parted, as though stilled mid-syllable, and the flesh of his hand around hers felt dense and cold and stiff, like wet clay.  His eyes were still partly open, and she could see a grain of sand resting on the surface of the eyeball.  He already smelled different.  The spice and tobacco and strange desert smell were gone, replaced with a faint but foul smell that seemed to come from deep inside him.  Her mother had told her that the role of women was to usher men into and out of life; this was an old family tradition, according to her mother, that went back generations.  She had never paid much attention to it; when you’re in your twenties, one pays little attention to the specter of death.  Now she had laid next to a man she barely knew while his last breath left him. The loneliness she felt was unspeakable.  She gave a hopeless and silent sob, pressed her eyes closed, and prayed for sleep.

Failing Up.

I’m going to let you in on one of the things I really love about writing.

It’s almost impossible to fail at it.

When you write, especially with modern tools, you’re just a backspace press (of varying lengths, of course) from being back on the right track.  It can hurt sometimes to set yourself back like that, but everything can be fixed.  It’s very very rare that something that I’ve started has gotten to the point at which it just had to be scrapped entirely, and in those cases, the failure happened very early in the process, during conception.

Not all activities are like this.  Drawing and painting aren’t like this… once you lay down the wrong line in ink, it’s there for good.  Oh, sure… they sell correcting fluids and opaque white inks, and there are methods by which you can simply cut out the offending piece of paper and replace it.  These techniques only minimize the original mistake… the opaque ink isn’t entirely opaque, or you can see the cut lines in the paper, or the correction fluid is a very slightly different shade of white than the paper you’re using.  In painting, some media are more forgiving than others… watercolor scares the hell out of me.  Once that pigment is dry, you cannot pick it up, and attempts to cover it will always show a shadow of the original stroke.  With acrylic, you can generally paint over any mistakes pretty quickly, but if you’re a textural painter, the original brush strokes will never go away unless you sand them down.

Painting over a mistake is less practical with oil paints, since they can take months to dry fully, but that intractable wetness allows you the opportunity to simply scrape your mistake up with a palette knife, or to just repaint it.  Some of these mistakes, resolved through simply lightening or darkening the offending paint, or adding a different pigment, have given me some of the richest colors I’ve ever seen… paints featuring one pigment provide a bright but shallow color… a kind of monochromatic look that you don’t see in nature.  Color in nature, as with sounds and smells, is a thing of incredible variation, depending on the intensity and directionality of the light and in fact the composition of the surface itself, the roughness or smoothness of the surface, and depending on the sensitivity of the viewer’s eye.  This is why I love painting with oil paints… sometimes you just don’t know if a color is right until its on the canvas, and it may need to be adjusted.  Oil paints are so forgiving of this, and it lets you get the color, the shadow, and even the shape (yes, I have scraped entire lines and edges off of canvases) just right.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that oil painting thrives in the presence of human error.  Not error… let’s call it “human variability.”

We live in a world that demands compliance and consistency and homogeneity.  We perform jobs that expect the same performance again and again and again, regardless of whether you’re performing surgery or stuffing envelopes.  The unfortunate thing about this is that human beings are intensely variable little creatures.  It takes a lot of effort enforcing structure on us to get us to operate in this way, and that enforcement of structure, that training, starts in school.  This is why I tell my friends’ children that if they learn nothing else from finishing school, they’ll learn to work.

The effort that goes into writing, like oil painting, is much more forgiving of that human variability… in fact, as a writer, it pays to avoid doing your work the exact same way every time.  Our work benefits from innovation in ways that most work really doesn’t.  And thus, error in writing, even if it is deleted in the end (and believe me, a whole lot of it is) contributes to the finished product in ways that are incalculable.  In fact in most cases, the author probably doesn’t know what changes or decisions might be related in some way to a mistake made earlier in that piece, or even in a prior piece.  And I’m not just talking about learning from one’s mistakes, although that’s part of it, but a word that you consistently misspelled previously may influence word choice later on, or a word mistyped might alter the structure of an entire sentence.

This kind of variability, this brand of failure, can be practiced in everyday life, but it either has to be done on the back end, or has to be a part of a process that precipitates a policy change.  This is what makes working life so strange… employers will say that they value creativity, but they don’t… they want the benefit of creative employees, but reject the increase in variability that comes from divergent thinking.  Creativity inherently involves risk.  There is no way to get around that risk.  The ability to take risks and roll with the punches when the results come in is the very heart and soul of creative work.

And when you take a risk and fail in a creative setting, you have to start again from where the mistake was made.

This is costly for large companies or even government offices.  The efficiency that they treasure is a big part of meeting revenue goals.  If one person is less efficient, that’s not a huge effect, but if fifty thousand people are less efficient, that ends up being a much bigger deal.  So in our work, as people, we are not encouraged to engage in divergent thinking.

But when you’re writing, I would encourage everyone to embrace your mistakes and your failures.  They are going to make you a better writer.  It’s not a big deal to take a little longer than expected to pick up a new skill… in fact, I think that it may allow someone to gain a more complete understanding of the process.  In most cases, the risks are going to be low… nobody’s going to die, you’re not going to destabilize eastern europe, and you’re not going to cause a global recession.

In most cases, the cost is going to be just a little more time spent on whatever you’re working on, and your own pride.  This process is definitely worth the time, and we could all do with a little less pride.

And I think this carries over to other aspects of our lives as well.

The Gift.

I was handed a gift yesterday.

It’s a sheet of heavy paper like the kind you would find used as packing inside a produce box.  It was folded in sixths, and it has writing scrawled all over it.

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A coworker found it inside the mailbox at work, crammed in next to the bundle of newspapers.

“I thought you’d be interested,” he said.

“Why would you think I’d be interested?”  I was wide-eyed, turning the heavy paper over in my hands.

“Because it’s bizarre,” he replied.

I kept it.  Folded in its original sixths, it fits in my shoulder bag.  The writing on it is frantic, and difficult to read in places.  What is legible are the writings of a crazy person.  These artifacts aren’t always easy to find, and they certainly aren’t commonly handed to one in ones place of work.  In tone, the writings remind me of the writings a roommate once left behind in my trashed apartment after threatening to kill me and forcing me to spend a week sleeping on my brother’s couch.  His opus was scrawled on the walls of the unit and on the acrylic cutting boards in my kitchen in ballpoint pen… one of the cutting boards just had “PTSD” written all across it.  The content of this is different, and separated from me by the gulf of unfamiliarity.  I intend to work on transcribing these individual paragraphs scattered across the paper over the next few days.

Now you might ask, and understandably so, why such a thing might be considered a gift.

The work of the writer, and the artist, is based in truth.  We take what we know, and we strip away from it the identifying factors, and turn our story into mankind’s story.  This removal of identity is key, because it depersonalizes the information and makes it both safer for us to share, and more digestible and useful for the audience.  The poet depersonalizes his truth similarly, but using a different strategy… he relies on the lyrical structure to turn it into a kind of incantation.

And nobody tells the truth as they see it more boldly than a crazy person.

Sanity versus madness is not  a binary condition; no creature with our level of emotional engagement and self awareness can be cognizant of its own death and be called truly sane.  We are ranged along a spectrum from the mildly neurotic to the completely insane.  Sanity is the measurement of one’s rationality, of one’s awareness of and attachment to the outside world.  A person may take the same pieces and put them together in a different way, or one might be using different pieces entirely from those that the rest of the world uses.  Either way, this constitutes a breakdown in the ability to draw correct conclusions from stimuli.

When people write like this, they are so overwhelmed by these thoughts that they seek to control them by putting them to paper… the thought is that if they can arrange them in some way, categorize them, group them, that one might slow their repetitive litany.  The thoughts themselves are perceived as the danger, rather than a symptom.  And in committing them to paper, the person in question is writing down what is most important to them at that moment in time.

In this sense, the writer is laying down truth of a purity that the rest of us have a difficult time mustering… because we fear the truth.

I think we all fear the truth on some level… we lie to ourselves, we maintain fantasies about ourselves, our lives, and our futures.  We sometimes live in fear of being found out, of being exposed.  The honesty with which one must write exposes one… it creates an emotional intimacy, which is also a vulnerability.  And so, we write in code; poetry, novels, and short fiction.  Or we transmute the truth into a visual form that can move the viewer’s heart; it can expose them to the truth without putting them in danger.

This is one of the great paradoxes of the artist… that we must strive for truth and at the same time carefully avoid it.

This is not a bad thing, really… we obviously cannot be vulnerable to everyone who reads our work.  I don’t know that there’s any way for one to live as a social mammal with that high level of personal investment and emotional risk.

But the insane recognize different dangers.  The pressure of racing thoughts and compulsions poses a greater existential threat than the risk of emotional injury from the outside world, a world that already largely rejects them.  And so, they are able to commit their thoughts to writing with a much higher degree of honesty.  Some of what they will write will make a kind of sense; some will not.  But there’s a jagged purity to it all that we can learn from.

In addition, these voices normally disappear… they are thrown away and rendered illegible rather quickly by the process of decay, never to be reproduced by the writer who in all likelihood already exists in a state of marginalization.  Was it an accident that this paper ended up in the mailbox at my work?  Probably… who knows?  But once I have these words transcribed, they will be one more little voice, however deranged, that has a slightly longer life than it would’ve otherwise.  Maybe it’s silly of me, but I think that’s actually kind of important.

These words are a verbal representation of someone’s mind, someone’s soul… no matter how broken.  And that gives them weight.

I’ll post what I can after I’m done writing it all down.  Probably next week sometime.